In teaching, less is more

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Question: When you’re teaching, how much should you cover?

I propose a couple answers:

Answer A: You shouldn’t cover much, because the more you cover, the less they learn.

Answer B: Trick question! You’re not supposed to “cover” anything! If you teach a topic by just making sure it gets covered in a lecture, then you’re not really teaching it. Continue reading

How should the shape of your grade distribution change the way you teach?

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I’ve received a number of comments about one of the recommended reads from last Friday. It was about the New York Times op-ed piece, about why people shouldn’t grade on a curve. And then, I asked, who does that anymore? The answer is: a lot of people. In addition to the comments on the post, I’ve gotten some emails and chatted with a few people (here while I’m at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, Florida).

One friend is in a department in which all faculty are rigorously required to conform their grades to a particular distribution, and they can’t submit their grades unless they follow this practice. Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?

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There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

What are office hours for?

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What do you think office hours are for?

Office hours are drop-in* hours for students to see their professors. How should you spend this time?

If you don’t have students in your office, then you should probably be writing. Because we always should probably be writing, right? Or analyzing. Or doing a weekly browse of tables of contents. Or something else productive. If you’re me, you should be cleaning your office.

But let’s say students appear** for office hours, how are they supposed to be used? Here are some reasons students visit: Continue reading

The case for open book exams

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In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?

Open_book_nae_02On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.

I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety. Continue reading

There are many pathways to becoming a great teacher

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I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.

So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)

SimpleTricks

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Why I avoid lecturing

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Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.

Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape. Continue reading

There are lots of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach

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In my last post I complained that grad students don’t generally get taught how to teach in grad school, despite the fact that they are (arguably) there to be trained for a career that requires them to teach. Thanks very much to everyone who commented! As a result of both the comments and getting more information about TA training at my current university, I’ll now write about how there are in fact a lot of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach. You just have to put a bit of effort into going out and finding them. Continue reading

16 things to consider as you assemble your syllabus

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  1. Do you tell students how long it will take for you to respond to emails?
  2. Do you have clear-cut consequences for academic misconduct such as cheating and plagiarism? Do you know exactly what you plan to do when you find misconduct? (Here is how I deal with it.)
  3. Is your course designed to minimize the probability of cheating?
  4. Are you offering extra credit? If you are, do all students have equal opportunity to get the extra points, considering that different students have different schedules outside of class time? (Maybe extra credit isn’t a good idea.)
  5. Have you ever changed the date of an exam from the one on the syllabus? Be sure to put in print whether or not an exam date is a firm promise or just a guesstimate; students schedule around these dates.
  6. Is your grading scheme designed so that it is unambiguous, fair, and minimizes student stress (and in general make your life easier) ?
  7. Do you have a very clear-cut policy on laptops and phones? Many people have phone addiction issues and the learning environment is ruined if you don’t deal with it respectfully.
  8. Are you okay with students using earlier editions of the textbook, and is this on the syllabus? Students often ask or wonder because current editions are so expensive and typically are very similar to previous editions.
  9. If a student misses a class that has an assignment turned in or a quiz or exam, does the student know exactly what will happen? Is it possible to design your grading scheme so that accidentally missing a class will not be a personal disaster for the students? Could you design an assignment policy so that nobody will feel compelled to invent a dead grandparent?
  10. Do you include participation points? If so, are these points administered in an unbiased and transparent way so that the students will be able know their exact score at the end of the semester without having to guess? If not, your participation policy is too subjective and unfair.
  11. When students turn in written assignments, will they know the specific criteria upon which these will be evaluated? If you have expectations for writing, could you put the criteria for the rubric in your syllabus. Grading writing without a rubric is unfair to students as they won’t know what you are expecting in the written assignment before doing the work.
  12. You’re going to get grade disputes, even if you say that you do not entertain grade appeals. Do you have a clear policy about grade appeals on your syllabus? Do your policies and practices deter unreasonable appeals?
  13. Is it possible to assign grades to students not based on scores that they earn on assignments, but instead on what competencies they are able to show by the end of the semester?
  14. Some students really love getting their grades through the course management system (Blackboard/WebCT/Moodle/whatever). Do you specify in your syllabus how you use the online course system?
  15. Do any disabled students — including those with a learning disability — know that you’re prepared to provide accommodations for them? Some students can be anxious that faculty might not be receptive and going beyond institutionally required boilerplate can be helpful.
  16. Is there anything in your syllabus that would look bad on the internet? It’s now a very small world.

 

 

*Note: now that buzzfeed is starting to gain the appearance of something like journalism once in a while, I’ve decided that the title of this piece of writing is journalistic enough for today.

Dear students, a member of the class asked…

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This is a post by Catherine Scott.

I am TAing a first year introductory Ecology/Evolution course this semester, and the laboratory exam is coming up on Tuesday. I’m spending a lot of time this weekend emailing the entire class list messages that start, “Dear students, a member of the class asked…” I go on to list the (anonymized) question, and my answer. I copied this technique from a great professor I had for an invertebrate zoology course. As an extremely shy undergraduate student who never once went to an office hour or emailed a professor or TA with a question, I really appreciated this approach. Continue reading

Efficient teaching: improving student writing ability

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Last week’s post was about university writing requirements that fall ludicrously short of their goal, like how this ferret falls short of his goal:

Let’s assume two facts:

  1. We should expect good writing of our students.
  2. Good writing comes from lots of experience with writing.

Which results in the following inference:

It is incumbent on us to require lots of writing from students in our classes. Continue reading

Should ecologists teach writing?

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I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style. Continue reading

Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom

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Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.

I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick. Continue reading

Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way

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Here are a few difficult facts about education in college classrooms:

  1. Lectures don’t work well. People just don’t really learn much from hour-long lectures.
  2. People learn when they discover ideas on their own.
  3. People learn best when working with peers.
  4. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just explain something to someone than to set up a situation in which this person can figure it out for themselves
  5. It takes a lot longer for a person to figure something out than it takes for you to just explain it to them.

I suppose you can take issue with some of these facts and argue that they’re not true facts. But just as climate scientists are mighty darn sure about anthropogenic warming trends, education researchers seem to be just as sure about this these facts. I let them take my word for it about ecology and evolution, and I’ll take their word for it about education.

And this is a problem, because it means that what a lot of us have been doing appears to not just suboptimal but downright inadvisable. Continue reading

History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)

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By Sarah Bisbing

I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure. Continue reading

Charging a cover for lab participation

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I am considering implementing a new policy this fall in the lab portion of my primary course. The short version is: students would need to read/watch certain things before coming to lab that would prepare them for the day’s activity. Before entering the lab classroom, they would be handed a (relatively easy) quiz on those materials. These practices are pretty standard in lab courses, in my experience. Here’s the twist: if a student didn’t get at least a 75% on the quiz, s/he would not be allowed to participate in the lab, and would forfeit all points associated with it.

If you’re like me, your first reaction to that is, “Wo. That’s pretty harsh.” Continue reading

Teaching Challenges: group projects

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Science is a collaborative effort and in essence, more and more of our scientific effort is done in groups. We come up with projects together, divide the labour, and co-write the papers that come out of it. So the idea of the lone scientist, working away in a solitary lab is really something for the movies rather than reality.

In teaching, group projects not only mimic the reality of what happens ‘for real’* but also provide a valuable learning experience for students. If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of group work here is a start and here and here offer some tips on how to implement group assignments. Continue reading

Field courses: a blessing and a curse

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Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). Continue reading